While the skies above Central Park threatened thunder and lightning, the true storm raged onstage. Although the rain never fell, the theatrical tempest reached hurricane proportions. King Lear cursed his two older daughters, banished his loyal courtier and cast out his dearest child.
The second of the free Shakespeare in the Park summer productions at the Delacourt Theatre, King Lear is one of the most moving and insightful of the Shakespeare’s works. It deals with parent-child relationships as well as the conflicts between young and old. Their fathers cast out the children who display filial love and loyalty, while the dissembling villains gain power and possessions. Edmund, the bastard son of Earl of Gloucester, maneuvers to usurp his father’s lands and title, while Lear’s two older daughters strip him of his dignity and retinue, even shutting him out in the stormy night.
Lear sets his own downfall in motion when he decides to give his three daughters their shares of his kingdom while he’s still alive. All they need to do is tell him how much they love him. The two older ones, Goneril (Annette Bening) and Regan (Jessica Hecht) successfully flatter him to gain his approval and their portion, but the youngest, his favorite, Cordelia (Jessica Collins) answers honestly but without flattery. Irate, he casts her out. Lear begins as a tropical storm but his fury builds on itself, growing in intensity until it’s almost a category 5 hurricane. Lear angers quickly but refuses to rethink any decision. When his loyal advisor Kent (Jay O. Sanders) tells him he’s behaved foolishly, he turns on Kent as well. All of which leads to Lear’s madness and eventual death. As with most Shakespearean tragedies, most of the main characters die, even the innocent ones.
John Lithgow is impressive in the title role of Shakespeare’s King Lear. He works his way through the varied moods, sometimes tumultuous and other times tender. He displays uncontrollable anger towards his “thankless” daughters yet is gentle to the Fool (Steven Boyer) who through sarcasm and wit holds up a mirror to the King’s behavior. Lithgow, 68, got into shape for the physicality of the role. Although playing an 80-year-old, he comes on stage carrying the body of his daughter.
As his oldest daughter, Bening stiffly delivers her lines as if standing in front of her high school English class. Hecht, who usually gives a memorable performance, falls into a NY accent when she isn’t screaming for vengeance. Sanders is strong and capable and Clarke Peters makes a stately Glouchester.
But the evening, as well as the title role, goes to Lithgow. An actor whose delivered many comic and villainous performances, he touches our hearts even as we wish he’d change his actions. Under the skillful direction of Dan Sullivan, King Lear thrills the audience, and luckily for me, the only raging storm was on stage.